This is my D'var Torah from last Shabbat, Saturday, July 23, 2022.
“It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting.”
That’s a line from a conversation between then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her 15-year-old daughter Jane in the film On the Basis of Sex, which is partly the story of how RBG, zichrona livracha, came to win her first major court case for gender equality. Professor Ginsburg has just come back from teaching her newest law students, after walking through an anti-war demonstration to get into the building. Her own students in class are passionate and impatient, and it throws her for a loop. At home that night, RGB brings up a note with her name that Jane forged so she could skip school and attend a Gloria Steinem rally. They argue about which strategy is necessary for women’s equality -- the legal process or the rallies -- and Jane gets in her zinger: “It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting. That’s a support group.”
I think about this argument when I read the story of the five daughters of Tzelophechad in the Torah portion Pinchas. Machlah, Choglah, Milkah, Noah and Tirtzah are sisters who are absolutely the spiritual ancestors of Justice Ginsburg. She a modern icon of equality and the exemplar of a certain approach to change, and the five Torah sisters also icons especially in our age -- but there is a lot of arguing these days against the approach they have in common. So I want to explore how the Torah and the midrash understand the daughters, the B’not Tzelophechad, and to argue why we need more of their approach even though there is truth within Jane Ginsburg’s critique.
The story of B’not Tzelophechad (Numbers 27) is that their father had died in the desert, before the assignment of future land holdings in the Land of Israel to every family. They have no brothers, and according to the law communicated so far, their immediate family will not have any holding of land when the arrive shortly. So the sisters approach Moshe, El’azar the high priest and all the tribal leaders, in front of the whole community.
Vatikrav’na Bnot Tzelophechad -- they “came close.” Which I think we can understand this way: their strategy was to shrink the distance between themselves, and the judges and the men of the community. The best way to read the story in the Torah might be to have in mind the first cases that RGB pressed as a lawyer. Such as the one at the climax of the film, Moritz vs. Commissioner, argued in federal appeals court. There she challenged the constitutionality of a law that denied an unmarried man a tax deduction for the expenses related to care of his mother, even though a woman would have qualified.
So too when the sisters speak, they center not themselves as women but their father. They say avinu, “our father”, three times. Only at the end of their speech do they say give us, t’nu lanu achuza, give us something to hold among our father’s brothers. They mention that their father was not like the other men who had in fact been enemies of Moshe and El’azar’s father Aharon, part of the insurrection against them led by Korach. Those men deserved to be punished by not getting a holding in the land -- but not avinu, our father.
That’s exactly how Attorney Ginsburg started building a set of precedents striking down laws on the basis of sex discrimination: with a series of cases centering men. B’not Tzelophechad, like RBG, did not call into question the whole patriarchical system of property and inheritance. They found a place where the authorities might agree on their own terms to a ruling that benefits women.
And indeed, the five sisters win their case when Moshe takes it to his court of appeals, to God -- and the law is taught that in a case where there is no son then daughters shall inherit. We might say dayenu just at the fact that God seems to respond to this argument from women. That’s suprising all by itself, no? And not only that, but the first words of God’s response put B’not Tzelophechad in the center, and repeat their request as a court order -- naton titen lahem, “give, yes give to them” -- and “their father” isn’t mentioned until last part of that sentence.
But the midrash goes even further in explaining the process of legal response that happens here.
When God hears the sisters’ case, God’s first words to Moshe are: Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot. “The daughters are speaking right.” Also ken means “thus”, as in: the daughters of Tzelophechad are speaking the exact words I God have been instruction you Moshe to say already.
In this interpretation, God is saying: Moshe, you have been teaching the people the law of inheritance but you have left a gap. I have told you about it, but you have had a blind spot. Not me, not I the Divine -- but you are not seeing it. Even I haven’t been able to teach you yet how a law about families without sons is necessary. So now here are five real people -- do you see them? Do you get now the situation I’ve been telling you about?
So according to the midrash, God’s law isn’t being changed at all. It’s just being unblocked. Moshe finally is able to teach this part of the law to the people. And this is what makes him realize that it’s time to get to planning better for his retirement and succession. The rest of the chapter is Moshe saying to God: Let’s find a new leader who can lead around these matters better than I have been doing.
It is a compelling case of influencing leadership from the grassroots for social change. Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot.They speak ken -- they speak honesty, with integrity, with respect. They say ken to the men in charge -- ken means “yes.” Yes to the basic framework of Torah. The sisters have a better understanding of what God wants than even Moshe does.
That’s famously how RBG did it, particularly at the start of her career. She won more than one case on behalf of men, and got male judges to say that legal equality between the sexes was not new but had been in the Constitution all along. Justice Ginsburg spoke again and again about what we might call the vatik’rav’na principle, shrinking the distance, and the ken principle, not losing your integrity in the process. And as for what her daughter Jane said in the film, the Torah describes B’not Tzelophechad as va’taamod’na, they stood up. They absolutely did, and this is how they did it.
I hope so far I’ve made a good case for B’not Tzelophechad. But Jane Ginsberg age 15 and plenty of adult critics still have what to say back. Of course a group of male rabbis in the Talmud 1500-plus years ago are going to approve of this soft-spoken, gradual approach from women. And what did B’not Tzelophechad really achieve -- one fix for one specific case. If they had been five sisters with one brother, they would have gotten nothing. If only Miryam had been alive still, maybe she would have spoken more fundamentally about the bias in the whole system. We need an approach based on wider questioning and more pressure and more discomfort.
Well our own Torah reading presents a version of that approach a couple chapters earlier. It’s Pinchas the son of El’azar the high priest, who was faced in real time with a terrible social injustice -- an insurrection against God in the form of a pagan orgy in concert with the people of Moav. People were about to start dying in the conflict, or some say people were already dying. (I would make the case, though this is a whole other talk, that this particular pagan orgy is offensive to the Torah partly because of how degrading idolatry and its rituals were to women.)
Pinchas sees what is happening, the threat to lives and I will say to women. He sees a particular man and woman together and he skewers them through with a sword, killing them -- and the whole thing stops and the dying stops. And the Torah says that God rewards Pinchas and his descendents that they will be the major lineage for the kohanim (priests) from now on.
This is passion. The Torah has God say: Pinchas is passionate for the things I am passionate for. It’s something like what Professor RBG is afraid of according to the film. If a door is opened to violence as a response to social ills, who knows what happens after and who will be its victims down the road, as bystanders or targets. RGB was afraid that people who meet the violence of the current reality with mass protests that are too broad and too agressive, they might stop a plague but also unleash one.
And that’s why the tradition is skeptical about Pinchas, even though the Torah says he is devoted to the right things and he is rewarded. The midrash trends toward a real concern about him. So one interpretation is that Pinchas was allowed only one of these violent acts in his life. And that’s why the Torah labels his reward brit shalom, a covenant of peace. From now on, Pinchas has to include peacemaking in all of his future work and all of his future activism. Otherwise he will be too dangerous an actor, even for God, even against this kind of pagan insurrection that is a clear affront to the Ten Commandments.
(It’s clear to me that the story of B’not Tzelophechad is told the way it is intentionally as a contrast with Pinchas, through wordplay. Pinchas has passion, kin’ah, but B’not Tzelophechad have integrity and honesty, ken. The sisters draw close, vatikravna, in a twist on the root word karav that labels the offerings so associated with priests like Pinchas, the korbanot. Pinchas is unusually for the Torah introduced as not just son, but also grandson. B’not Tzelophechad are given three more generations of lineage than that. Pinchas jumps up -- vayakom -- but B’not Tzelophechad stand and stand together, vata’amod’na.)
In the past, I might have said that the Torah is giving us two models of activism in B’not Tzelophechad and Pinchas, and we need them at different times or they suit different people. A time for passionate and force and absolutism, and a time for up close engagement and gradualism. A time for Gloria Steinem and a time for RBG.
But today I say: Enough with adding more Pinchas. There is too much of it among the bad folks and even the good folks. Our spiritual and political air is choked with aggressive speech, metaphors of force and fight and violence in our speech and writing, zingers far worse than Jane Ginsburg’s to her mother. Not to mention actual violence.
It can feel so good to tell off, to mock and insult. Enough people do that, in direct speech and on social media. They’re on the wrong side but they’re on your side too. It’s more than covered, the aggressive, the Pinchas. It’s not just masculine either. It’s probaby not possible to change all the Pinchas-style behavior once it’s begun.
But we need more people to learn the ways of Bnot Tzelophechad. I don’t mean to be content with only one change. Or to decenter the people who should be at the center. Jane Ginsburg and the other critics are so right about that. But I don’t think the most important thing about Bnot Tzelophechad, or RBG, was the gradualism, the strategy. It’s believing that there is power that comes with ken dovrot, with speaking correctly and out of integrity, with figuring how to communicate what is eternally true and you know it when that’s still new to someone else. There is power in vatikrav’na, to coming toward someone else’s perspective -- it challenges them but not in a threatening way. It challenges in a charged but still inviting way. There is power in believing that the changes that are needed are ken -- they are already here in the Divine image of the world, they are already more eternal and more permanent than anything else, they just haven’t been seen or spoken aloud enough.
These are powerful moves -- they just might not look as forceful from the outside and they sure are not violent. But powerful are B’not Tzelophechad whenever they appear in our world. Enduring change doesn’t come only from force or only from keen strategy. It comes from affecting how people see alternate leaders, the effect of their integrity. Respect for them transforms enough opponents and enough bystanders. It need not transform them all.
People acting like the five sisters might be a support group, and that isn’t a bad thing. But they are not sitting -- they are standing up together. Without them, without us acting like them, there can never be any movement at all.